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Volume 453: debated on Tuesday 21 November 2006

11. What the arrangements are for the award of the South West Trains rail franchise; and if he will make a statement. (100559)

The Department announced on 22 September 2006 the award of the South Western rail franchise to Stagecoach South Western Trains Ltd for a period of 10 years from 4 February 2007, with the final three years dependent on service performance achieving pre-set targets.

How does the Minister reconcile the Department’s claim that the new franchise will reduce overcrowding on South West trains, especially for commuters, with the company’s explanation that it plans to increase the number of passengers by 20 per cent. by reducing the number of seats?

I have to question that comment by the hon. Gentleman. Some £70 million has already been invested in new trains in the South Western franchise, providing an extra 4,500 seats, some of which are already in service. The new franchise will commit Stagecoach to a 21 per cent. main line peak seats increase by the end of the franchise and a 20 per cent. increased capacity on peak-time suburban trains.

Will the Minister congratulate the Conservative-controlled Isle of Wight council on introducing free transport for pensioners on all Isle of Wight railway services and a 50p flat-rate fare for under-19s in full-time education? Will he find out from Stagecoach why, in its most recent glossy publication, it is unable to point to a single benefit to the Isle of Wight railway of uniting the South West Trains and Island Line franchises?

In October 2004, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced that the new South Western trains franchise would incorporate the Island Line unless it was decided that the needs of the Island Line would be better served by a form of community management as set out in the White Paper. Since then, the Island Line has been designated as a community rail line. I said in my written statement to the House:

“The decision on the future of the Island Line has been deferred to allow time for more extensive discussion with key stakeholders as to the most appropriate way forward, and recognising the recent Community Rail designation of the railway.”—[Official Report, 10 October 2006; Vol. 450, c. 21WS.]

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will take part in that consultation process.

Is the Minister aware that South West trains have to pass through Dawlish Warren on the coast of Devon? In spite of £9 million being spent by Network Rail and five full-time members of staff on site, trains are frequently stopped by high water and falling cliffs. Is he thinking of giving Network Rail additional money to bypass Dawlish Warren or of providing special armoured trains so that they can use the track in spite of the falling cliffs and the sea water flowing over it?

I can reveal to the House that there are no plans for armoured trains in the South West franchise at the moment. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to contact me, I will be happy to look into the matter for him. He will be interested to learn that the moving annual average passenger performance level for South West Trains is 90.1 per cent., and that will go up to 93.3 per cent. reliability by the end of the franchise. The current level compares with a national average of 87.6 per cent., so it is an extremely efficient service.